Canine Professionals and Social Media – have we missed the mark?

I have no solutions here, just a conversation I would like to have about social media and dog trainers and what our responsibility is and should be.  

A good friend and skilled trainer made a post yesterday about her medically fragile and behaviorally complex long-time heart dog.  It was a quick post, she shared a memory photo of her dog at one of his many veterinary specialists.  The dog was in his “public” gear which includes a harness that says “do not pet”, a yellow collar that says “caution”, a basket muzzle, and a leash wrap that also states not to approach.  She has done a beautiful job with this dog.  He’s 10 years old now and has never had a single instance of aggression causing injury.  A true miracle denoting her skill and dedication, especially considering his health history and the behavior issues it causes.  

Cue the incoming pet owner (not professional) who states how irresponsible she is for taking her dog into public looking like “Hannibal Lector.”  Many people took the time to educate this pet owner kindly on responsibly managing a dog like this, remind her this dog was not in public but rather at his visit to his veterinary specialist for his pain control, etc etc.  

The post got me thinking though: why would this pet owner respond this way?  I know she works with a group of trainers.  One of which has a house full of volatile and aggressive dogs with various triggers.  This trainer regularly posts her dogs actually in public – walking in a park or neighborhood, around other known triggers, and uses them as “demo” dogs for posts highlighting her work with dogs displaying dangerous or aggressive behaviors.  

Is that the problem?  Is utilizing social media to highlight complex behavior modification confusing the public?  Is posting “how to” videos about aggressive dogs, or even success with aggressive dogs, being worded in such a way that does not highlight the need for a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or certain level of professional?  Are we making posts that are minimizing the painstakingly slow and careful fine slicing of behavior so we can instead highlight our own advertisement and success?  

What is this actually doing to our education of the public?  Is it causing more problems than it’s solving?  

These thoughts caused me to evaluate my own posts on social media.  I want my business to grow.  I want to brag on my amazing highly certified, educated, and experienced training team and their successes.  I want to show that a behaviorally difficult dog can make huge strides in improvement with skilled behavior modification from qualified professionals.  

But is that actually what my posts are doing?  Is it actually what my colleagues posts are doing?  

Where is the sweet spot?  

As a professional, when I see posts of colleagues highlighting work with complex behavior cases and the success of behavior modification – I’m excited about that!  Wow!  Look at the progress that can be made with carefully and skillfully executed work with a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or a highly skilled trainer!  But is that what a pet owner sees?  

I know that the post saying something like, “after several weeks of work and just calmly tossing treats I was able to finally ask for a hand target and walk with Fluffy” means that this trainer has spent weeks fine slicing behavior, keeping the dog under threshold, implementing a highly skilled management plan, possibly working with a Veterinary Behaviorist, and patiently watching the paint dry on a skillfully developed environmental and behavior modification plan.  

But is that what pet owners see and hear from these posts?  

I’m concerned it’s not.  

Are we making the same mistakes we often accuse our more aversive colleagues of making?  Are we showcasing impressive “solution” videos rather than showcasing “process” videos?  Are we showcasing videos of significantly abnormal dog behavior and then showcasing the same dog “fixed” or “improved”?  Are we showcasing trainer successes that ethically should have been supervised by a Veterinary Behaviorist?  

I’m concerned that when we (myself included) make a post on social media highlighting success that we are creating a false sense of ease to the general public.  I’m concerned we are unintentionally teaching them that love and patience is all you need.  I’m concerned that we are not highlighting the hard things like environmental management, reduction of triggers by massive lifestyle changes, utilization of the skills of a Veterinary Behaviorist as a first line defense rather than a last resort, and all the things we know as professionals go into these “success posts.”  

My own company has chosen over the last few years to stop posting any videos that show the actual process of complex behavior modification of dogs exhibiting aggression.  But now I’m wondering if we swung the pendulum too far the other way.  Are we contributing to the apparent problem by not highlighting these cases at all?  

Our goal was that we didn’t want any video we posted to be used as a guide or “how to” on a dog we had not professionally evaluated.  We wanted to prevent the unsafe situation of “just enough information to be dangerous” for our followers.  But in our silence have we opened more space for less experienced and educated trainers with less likelihood to refer out to a Veterinary Behaviorist on complex cases to have a stronger foothold?  

What does responsible social media for complex behavior modification with presenting aggression look like?  

How do we protect our green-professional or non-professional viewers from thinking they can do this at home by following along without skilled professional oversight or just the bits and pieces we choose to post and highlight?  

How do we protect green trainers who we want to cultivate and empower from getting in over their head because we “make it look so easy”?  

I fear we’ve missed the mark and need to reevaluate, as an industry, how we utilize social media to highlight our complex behavior issues.  

As I said in the beginning, I have thoughts and opinions but no answers here.  I would love to hear from my professional colleagues and pet owners alike on their views on some or all of these questions.  

Let’s have a discussion.  

(as an important note, please remember when commenting and replying that we debate issues, not people, on this platform.  I would love to hear your opinion and replies to other opinions but personal attacks will not be tolerated.  Back up your position and differing positions with arguments about the issue and reference material as available.)  

Published by abigailwitthauer

Lover of animal behavior, impassioned for social justice, demander of service dog reform. Please bring wine and cheese.

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